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'The fire is approaching': Assad says West has no proof regime carried out chem attack

Syrian President Bashar Assad speaks during an interview with French newspaper Le Figaro in Damascus on Monday.SANA via EPA

Taunting President Barack Obama as weak and ineffectual, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad claimed in an interview with a French newspaper that his accusers — including the White House and the French government — have no evidence that his regime killed more than 1,000 people in a chemical weapons attack.

"Anyone accusing must give proof," Assad told Le Figaroin interview excerpts published online Monday. "We have challenged the United States and France to come forward with a single proof."

Assad's government has strongly denied responsibility for the mass killing in the suburbs of Damascus, claiming rebel insurgents launched the chemical weapons.

The Obama administration and French President Francois Hollande have charged Assad's regime with perpetrating the horrific Aug. 21 chemical strike, which U.S. officials say killed 1,426 people, including hundreds of children.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday said that samples collected by first responders have tested positive for the nerve agent sarin. 

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Assad remained defiant in his interview with Le Figaro, telling the newspaper that "Obama and Hollande have been incapable" to offer proof of his regime's culpability "even in front of their people."

"For us, a strong man prevents rather than starts a war," Assad said. "If Obama was strong, he would have said publicly: 'We have no evidence of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian state.' He would have said publicly: 'The only way to proceed is through U.N. investigations. We therefore refer everything to the Security Council.'

"But Obama is weak because he is facing pressure from within the United States," he said.

The White House on Friday released an intelligence report (.pdf) claiming "high confidence" that the Syrian government deployed illegal chemical weapons. The report cited a "large body of independent sources" but acknowledged that not all the evidence could be declassified.

"I do not say that the Syrian army possesses or not these weapons," Assad said.

When asked how he would respond to potential military strikes against key Syrian targets, Assad suggested that the region would spiral into chaos, saying: "The Middle East is a powder keg, and the fire is approaching today."

Referring to two of the U.S.'s fiercest enemies, Assad warned that "nobody would be able to separate Syria's interests from those of Hezbollah and Iran. Today regional stability depends on the situation in Syria."

"Russia is aware of this," he said, suggesting that a U.S. attack could draw Moscow into the fighting.

For nearly two years, Syria has been torn asunder by near-constant clashes between Assad's military forces and disparate bands of rebel fighters. The violence was triggered by a 2011 revolt against Assad's rule.

More than 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict, which had a pre-war population of about 20.8 million, said Peter Kessler, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

When asked whether he regards the government of France, which has pledged to support the Obama administration's potential strikes, as an "enemy," Assad said: "Whoever contributes to the financial and military reinforcement is an enemy of the Syrian people. Whatever efforts against Syrian interests and its citizens is an enemy."

A French intelligence report published Monday charges the Syrian regime with launching the chemical attack and warns that the government could perpetrate similar strikes in the future, according to The Associated Press.

The nine-page document produced by France's military and foreign intelligence services details five points that suggest Assad's forces mounted the deadly attack, a government source told Reuters.

The intelligence dossier is key to Hollande's repeated calls for military action against Assad — paralleling the U.S. intelligence report the White House released Friday.

And nearly 50 amateur video clips reportedly recorded the morning of the chemical assault that show the effects on civilians have been authenticated by French military doctors, Reuters reported.

Jim Miklaszewski, Courtney Kube, Nancy Ing and Alexander Smith of NBC News contributed to this report.

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